UW Retirement Association

March 4, 2015

Heather McHugh: Caring for Caregivers

caregiftedWhat does an award-winning poet, MacArthur fellow, longtime university teacher and mentor do for a second act in her life?

If you’re lucky and enough to be Heather McHugh, you become a social entrepreneur, creating a nonprofit that cares for caregivers, and throw all your passion into the effort.

McHugh, who was the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the UW since 1984, received her MacArthur fellowship in 2009. The fellowship is unusual in that it comes with no strings attached, no mandatory work plan or “deliverables,” as they say in the grantmaking world.

McHugh took the opportunity to go in a very different direction, driven largely by a lifelong relationship with a young man she refers to as her godson, and his family. His wife gave birth to a special-needs child who required constant attention.

“By nature I want to take care of people,” she said. “It gives me joy.” She was always looking for ways to help the couple. One urgent need she identified was the desire to just have a week away, a respite with no obligations. This turned out to be an offer that was warmly received.

“Some friends told me they thought that having caregivers go away for a while would somehow make their life worse rather than better. It turned out quite the opposite. In fact, it changes the conception of time for them. People who are constant caregivers can feel trapped. A period of respite can in fact unlock time.” And as for McHugh, the experience changed her thinking about caregivers in a number of ways.

McHugh realized she could expand her gift beyond the couple she knew. She considered various approaches and talked with friends. McHugh had the passion and the vision; she also learned that no organization with a similar mission existed anywhere. Starting in 2011, she began thinking of her MacArthur fellowship of $500,000 as seed money for her new venture.  In 2012 she retired from the UW and founded Caregifted.org, which provides respite getaways to long-term family caregivers.

The focus of Caregifted has been on those family members who have been caregivers for at least a decade. The organization provides a week respite at condominiums in Victoria, British Columbia, all expenses paid.

“My chief motivation was to celebrate the caregivers,” she said. “As a society we should be grateful to those who provide care in a very special way. Talking with these people, working with them, has changed my definition of love.”

But how would she translate her vision into a functional nonprofit? In the early days, she received some help from Children’s Hospital, acting as the fiscal agent. One of her first smart decisions was to hire a financial officer. “I realized I wasn’t good at the administrative part, and I wanted to make sure we were compliant with our legal and ethical obligations.”

And from the beginning she decided that she wanted to create a documentary about caregivers. “I found a talented young filmmaker, Adam Larsen, through some friends, and he agreed to work on the documentary. We worried that caregivers would be reluctant to appear in the film. But every one of them has said yes. They felt isolated and had a need to share their experiences with other people.” The film, carrying the working title “Undersung,” will be finished this spring, and McHugh is working toward reaching a national audience with its message.

She also has recruited a board for Caregifted that is interested in working on a startup organization and all the challenges that presents. “We need to be inventive, to go against some conventional wisdom to be successful.” McHugh would much rather that Caregifted remain small and successful in reaching its mission, rather than growing prematurely. “I’d rather get it good than get it big.”

McHugh recognizes that in order to sustain the organization, fundraising will be a major part of the work. Although she calls herself “ill-disposed for fundraising by nature,” she managed to recruit this year a cadre of distinguished writers who offered to critique the works of aspiring writers for free, with their customary fees replaced by donations to Caregifted.

McHugh has no regrets about giving up her 40-plus-year career as an educator: “I had learned to teach well, perhaps too well. The preparation for each class was becoming automated for me.”

McHugh remains Caregifted’s concierge, interviewing potential awardees and shepherding them on their weeklong getaway. While they all appreciate the special gift of time, they are nonetheless eager to return to their family.

How does a poet and academic gain the confidence to try something completely different? “I don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to be an executive director,” she says. “It’s not what I was trained for. But I look at the caregivers. They weren’t trained for their work, either. I’m inspired by their nobility.”